30 years ago today: Fire leads to 16 deaths at the John Sevier Center

Jonathan Roberts • Dec 23, 2019 at 3:31 PM

It was a record-breakingly cold night, and Linn Abbott-Jennings, her brother, Alex Hamric, and their mother, Texie Hamric, were gathered in Texie’s ninth-floor apartment at the John Sevier Center just before 5 p.m.

It was Christmas Eve, 1989 — a day would forever be an infamous piece of Johnson City’s history.

“I can remember it just like it was yesterday,” Abbott-Jennings said. “It started out as such a beautiful day.”

Abbott-Jennings and her brother had arrived at the John Sevier to pick up their mother for a Christmas dinner with family around 5 p.m., she recalls. A few moments later, an investigation would later find, the resident in room 102 lit a cigarette and left it smoldering above the loveseat in the apartment — a mistake that would lead to 16 deaths, and unimaginable tragedy.

Sometime around 5:30 p.m., Abbott-Jennings said she heard a faint announcement telling residents to head for the nearest exit. Hoping to figure out what was going on, Alex Hamric poked his head out of the apartment’s door, but was quickly overcome by thick, toxic smoke. The family spent the next several hours waiting for rescue by hanging outside their apartment window, desperate for fresh, clean air.

“If my brother had not been there, I would have got us killed,” Abbott-Jennings said. “I would have gone right out that door and tried to get to the staircase, which was right there at mother’s apartment door.” 

As the fire tore through the buildings first two floors, thick smoke trapped many on the buildings upper floors, leading to 16 deaths. All but two having occurred on the fourth floor or higher.

“It looked like smoke was coming from every window,” said former Johnson City Fire Chief Mark Finucane. “It was just surreal. Honestly, my first impression was it looked like a castle under siege.” 

On that night, Finucane was off-duty, but was called in to assist in fighting one of the worst fires the city had ever seen.

“I remember receiving a call from one of the fire stations that the John Sevier was on fire, and I kind of half-believed them because there had been a number of false alarms throughout the years,” Finucane said. “I thought maybe they were pulling my leg a little bit but they said ‘no, no, it’s on fire’ so I jumped into my car and headed toward headquarters ... on my way I could actually see the smoke coming off the building and thought ‘oh my, this cannot be good’.”

Finucane would spend the night fighting the fire, working with first responders from as far as 70 miles away. Abbott-Jennings, meanwhile, would be the first of her family to be rescued, but was wrought with grief as she waited for her mother and brother to be rescued, something that took about an hour more. Her family, however, would make it out unscathed, though her 78-year-old mother would be transported to the hospital as a precaution.

“It seemed an eternity,” Abbott-Jennings said. “It was a reunion like you would never, ever believe.” 

As a historic rescue mission was being undertaken by the first responders from across the region, many Johnson Citians watched in horror as the drama played out live on television. In 2014, several Johnson City Press readers shared their memories of that night, with one person, Shay Hicks, recalling watching on TV when her father, former fire chief Paul Souder, was recalled to help battle the blaze.

“We watched the devastation on TV and would get updates from the other family members as we would find out,” Hicks wrote. “I think that was the first time I was really scared that I wouldn’t see my dad again.”

Her father would make it out, but for the families of those who did lose somebody that day, the memory of that day will forever be a part of them and their family.

Alex Ogburn was one of those who lost somebody that night, with his father, William Carl Ogburn, dying inside his eighth floor apartment. Speaking to The Press in 2014, Alex Ogburn said he “used to have a hard time at Christmas,” and that it took about a decade for the pain of that night to finally ease around the holidays.

“Everyone’s got hard situations to deal with, and it’s how we deal with them that determines our character, not how we don’t deal with it,” Ogburn said at the time.

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